Tennessee's seniors begin their good-byes tonight and the ceremonial start to the process will take some time.
Five Lady Vols will be honored before the final regular-season women's basketball home game, against Florida (16-11, 5-7 SEC) at 7 o'clock at Thompson-Boling Arena. For No. 3 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1), Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste comprise the largest senior class since 1983-84.
Add the accompanying family members and the court figures to be very crowded. Hornbuckle's mother, Quandora, will sing the national anthem. Anosike's older brother, Ifesinachi, will see her play for the first time.
UT officials will supply a script and a schedule to organize the evening. It will be up to the seniors, though, to sort through all of their thoughts and emotions. They're hoping that project takes more time, as much as the season will allow, and that they don't have to settle for any sense of remorse.
"We don't want to leave with any regrets,'' Hornbuckle said. "I wish I would've done this my senior year. I wish that we could've turned it around before a loss in the NCAA tournament or what not. You have to realize this is your last opportunity to be a Lady Vol. You have to step it up."
The players who climbed to the top of a step ladder in Cleveland, Ohio, last April after helping win the program's first national championship in nine seasons were part of the group that marched to the top row of the arena Monday afternoon. They were sent there by the coaches to contemplate a fan's view after the season's largest crowd, 20,249, witnessed Tennessee's relatively lackluster 72-46 victory over Mississippi State on Sunday.
"We haven't had a terrible season if you look at the win-loss column,'' Hornbuckle said. "But if you just watched our games, yes it has not been a good season."
From the lofty vantage point, Hornbuckle and the other seniors had a better view of last season's championship banner. It hangs from the rafters next to the other six, symbolizing the mark the seniors have left on the program and broadening the perspective on this group. They've been good for UT.
"They've kept Tennessee as one of the top programs in the country,'' UT coach Pat Summitt said. "That 2007 national championship, we waited a long time for it."
This class initially arrived as the most ballyhooed recruiting class in women's history, the celebrated "six pack."
Since then, Alex Fuller has been splintered from the group by multiple knee surgeries her freshman season. Parker, who sat out her first season for the same reason, rejoined the class, forgoing an extra season of eligibility.
Junior college transfers Auguste and Bobbitt joined as a hoops version of a rescue squad after the transfers of six-pack members Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and Sybil Dosty.
Parker summed up all the personnel changes under the philosophical heading "everything happens for a reason." In this case, she had a pretty good reason.
"I don't think we win a national championship without Shannon or (Alberta) last year,'' Parker said.
Bobbitt and Auguste, both highly decorated junior college players, will take a bow tonight for putting the team concept before any personal ambitions.
"They were humble; they were appreciative,'' Summitt said. "They took nothing for granted. It was great."
The upgrade from junior college to UT was pretty good for them, too. Leave it to assistant coach Dean Lockwood to imagine a comparable context.
"They were like stepchildren,'' he said. "The second set of foster parents had just died, so they knew they were living upstairs in someone's garage. And now all of a sudden you give them a home and three squares a day and a closet full of clothes and they're like, 'Holy cow. Are you kidding me?' ''
He might have overstated the situation. On the other hand, there's no overestimating the importance of the other three seniors forging a working relationship. Summitt dubbed Parker, Hornbuckle and Anosike "the big three" before last season and hitched the team's fortunes to the merger of their talents and leadership.
"I think they came in, quite frankly, as three individuals and now they've become three team members who are very much tied together with the accomplishments of the team,'' Lockwood said.
"... The journey has been quite significant, the three of them together. You go through that, it can't help but bring you closer together."
What those three saw from the top of Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday afternoon wasn't any more important than what they still see in each other.
"I hope at some point, even if it's over a Coke somewhere for 10 minutes, they sit and talk about that,'' Lockwood said, "and they look in each other's eyes and say, 'This is it. Let's do this one more time and make it special.' Because I think that's what it takes."
Taking the time - while they still have the time.
"I think the first thing we need to concentrate on is finishing out the season with no more losses,'' Anosike said, "And then once we get into SECs, I think we all three need to sit down and just recap what we want to do and how we want to do it."